One of the real pleasures of documentary filmmaking is getting to spend some intentional time with people – that is, directed moments together that can include conversation, observation, contemplation.
People of all ages have impressed me, but perhaps no group more so than those with decades of experience.
Age affects each of us differently, but I have been privileged to share moments with a number of people whose age was enlivening, crystallizing, empowering … for them and for me.
Below, I list – and I hope honor – some of these souls. In alphabetical order, they are:
Alcena Boozer (born 1938). Boozer, now retired, was rector of St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church in Portland, Ore., when she talked with us about lotteries for our documentary “Sacred Texts, Social Duty.” We discussed how the lottery was and is viewed as a form of public tax evasion.
“I think having the lottery as a way to evade tax reform is a fair statement,” said Boozer, who also served as president of the board of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. “To have state-supported gambling is really … one of our less noble characteristics in this state.”
Will Campbell (born 1924, died 2013). We spent time with Campbell, author of “Brother to a Dragonfly,” for our documentary “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism.”
His office – a cabin on his Mount Juliet, Tenn., farm – was a museum, practically. He spoke frankly and personally about religion – his religion – and racism. (See some of his comments on racism and the church here.)
Jimmy Carter (born 1924). I shot Carter from the media platform at the 2008 New Baptist Covenant in Atlanta, but also shot a one-on-one interview with him at the Carter Center in 2012 as we began work on “Through the Door,” our new documentary on prisons and faith. (See some of his comments on prisons and punishment here.)
Producer Robert Parham and I had about 45 minutes with him, and not a one was wasted. He was 87 then and as professional as it gets.
John Fife (born 1940) and Gene Lefebvre (born 1933). Parham has referred to these two as the “Sonoran Desert’s crusty saints.”
These Presbyterian pastors led us into Arizona’s desert, by the border with Mexico, to their No More Deaths encampment, which seeks to prevent deaths of migrants in the desert. We included their story in our faith and immigration documentary, “Gospel Without Borders.” These men were leaders of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s – and two of the bravest men I’ve met.
We also followed him around Auburn First Baptist Church and rolled while he taught Sunday school. The two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee is more than a walking encyclopedia; he’s one with a moral conscience.
Norma Baker Gabhart (born 1929). Gabhart is a retired psychology professor from Belmont University in Nashville. She is a fellow church member at First Baptist Church Nashville, and one who has become a sincere friend.
When I learned in 2013 that she had heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961 – a pivotal moment for Baptists and race relations – I asked her to share her memories of King. “Dr. Norma,” as our children call her, has become a hero of the faith for me.
Emmanuel McCall (born 1936). McCall was named EthicsDaily.com’s 2009 “Baptist of the Year” for, among other things, his lifelong commitment to racial reconciliation.
We interviewed him for our 2008 documentary on Baptists and racism – a project that ultimately took its name (“Beneath the Skin“) from a comment McCall made in his interview: “When you cut beneath the skin, it’s all the same.”
Sayyid Syeed (born 1947). Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances, was a major “character” in our documentary “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” which aired on ABC-TV in 2010. (See him discuss what Muslims can learn from Baptists here.)
The energetic Syeed was always quick to laugh and ready to keep people on their toes. For example: Did you know Syeed was the father of Jesus?
Wayne Ward (born 1921, died 2012). When King spoke at Southern Seminary in 1961, one of the professors involved in welcoming him to campus was Wayne Ward. (Ward is just to King’s right in an iconic photo of that event.)
We interviewed Ward for “Beneath the Skin,” and one of the things the theology professor did for us was unpack the so-called “curse of Ham” from the story of Noah. He did so sporting a bright blue blazer and a great white shock of hair, sitting in a pew against the gray stone of Louisville’s Highland Baptist Church.
I was aware then, and am now, of what that moment represents:
â— We ignore the lessons of experience at our own peril.
â— Bravery and beauty can advance with age.
â— And a sage elder, willing to face the camera’s eye, must be respected, appreciated and heard.
Editor’s note: For more on this subject, read Robert Parham’s editorial from last summer, “Retirement-Aged Christians Are Today’s Drum Majors for Justice.”